How Anti-Vaxxers Made Justin Bieber the Latest ‘Proof’ of Their Conspiracy Theories

How Anti-Vaxxers Made Justin Bieber the Latest ‘Proof’ of Their Conspiracy Theories

A new group of fans has Bieber fever: anti-vaxxers. To them, he’s living proof that bad things inevitably happen to people who get the COVID-19 vaccine, though there has been no clear evidence and no word from the Biebs himself.

Last Friday, Justin Bieber announced in a video on Instagram that he was cancelling his upcoming shows because he had contracted Ramsay Hunt syndrome, an illness caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes the chickenpox. One of the most visible symptoms of Ramsay Hunt is paralysis on one side of the face. This is exactly what happened to Bieber, leaving him incapable of singing and making it hard for him to eat.

“As you can see, this eye is not blinking. I can’t smile on this side of my face. This nostril will not move,” the singer said on June 10. “There’s full paralysis on this side of my face. So, for those who are frustrated by my cancelations of the next shows, I’m just physically obviously not capable of doing them.”

Although Bieber didn’t mention COVID-19 vaccines (and hasn’t disclosed if he’s vaccinated at all), anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists quickly latched on to his story on social media, baselessly claiming that it was obvious his illness was a vaccine side effect. Some even suggested that the singer’s wife Hailey, who was hospitalized after suffering a mini-stroke in March, had also suffered because of the vaccine.

“Justin Bieber reveals he’s been struck by facial paralysis from Ramsay Hunt syndrome in shock video,” one user wrote on Twitter the same day Bieber dropped his video. “ANOTHER VACCINE VICTIM. HIS MRS HAD BLOOD CLOTS A FEW WEEKS AGO. HOW MUCH HAVE BILL GATES PAID HIM TOO COVER UP THE CAUSE.”

When reached by Gizmodo for a response, Bieber’s manager did not offer comment.

As these claims began gaining ground on social media, especially on TikTok and Twitter, experts said that though the conspiracy theory was unfortunate, it wasn’t a surprise, just a common tactic by a ghoulish movement.

One of many posts on social media from anti-vaxxers falsely blaming Justin Bieber's illness on the covid-19 vaccine. (Screenshot: Jody Serrano / Gizmodo)One of many posts on social media from anti-vaxxers falsely blaming Justin Bieber’s illness on the COVID-19 vaccine. (Screenshot: Jody Serrano / Gizmodo)

“It’s strange, the mental gymnastics that go on,” University of Illinois at Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Katrine Wallace told Gizmodo. “To them, it’s so clear that it’s a vaccine side effect even though we have no documentation he was even vaccinated.”

When asked about posts with the fact-free claims , Twitter said it had slapped a misinformation label on the content Gizmodo provided and limited its visibility. The company did not reply to a follow-up on why the content was labelled and not removed or why the company had not taken action on other pieces of misinformation. Meta said it was reviewing content flagged by Gizmodo on Instagram and Facebook. Neither TikTok nor Reddit responded to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

The Anti-Vaxxers Who Cried “Vaccine!”

The conspiracy theory of Bieber’s Ramsay Hunt Syndrome took off on TikTok and Twitter, where researchers and medical professionals acted quickly to debunk it. It could also be found in the comments of Bieber’s own Instagram post and on Facebook, although to a seemingly lesser extent. In addition, the misinformation spread to some subreddits.

Sara Aniano, a researcher who tracks COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories, explained that anti-vaxxers have tended to link any famous person’s medical diagnosis to the COVID-19 vaccines if that person was vaccinated.

“After the vaccines became available, any time a celebrity had some kind of public health issue, these people would usually attribute it somehow to the vaccine,” she told Gizmodo.

Wallace, who debunked the Bieber vaccine theory on TikTok and Twitter, agreed with Aniano, pointing out that anti-vaxxers had even gone so far as to erroneously claim the vaccine was responsible for the deaths of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins and comedian Bob Saget.

Wallace told Gizmodo that some commentators pushed back against her tweets and TikTok, in which she maintained that Bieber’s condition was not caused by the COVID-19 vaccine, telling her that she couldn’t rule out that Bieber hadn’t developed Ramsay Hunt syndrome because she wasn’t his doctor and didn’t have his medical records. Yet, anti-vaxxers didn’t have firm ground to stand on either, Wallace explained, since it’s not publicly known whether the singer was vaccinated against COVID-19. Bieber did have COVID back in February.

Gizmodo reached out to Scooter Braun, Bieber’s manager, to ask if the singer was vaccinated but did not receive a response.

The Link Between Ramsay Hunt Syndrome and COVID-19

As explained by Wallace, Ramsay Hunt syndrome is a form of the shingles, an illness that can develop in people who’ve had the chickenpox years or even decades later. This is due to the fact that once someone is infected with the varicella-zoster virus, it doesn’t go away, but rather remains dormant in their nervous system.

When the immune system is stressed — and the stress can come from anything, from sickness to emotional distress, the epidemiologist said — the varicella-zoster virus can be retriggered, which leads to a shingles flare in some people. In the case of Ramsay Hunt syndrome, the shingles develop in the ear and the nerves in the face are paralysed.

Other symptoms include difficulty closing one eye and eye irritation; reduced facial expression and drooping muscles; muscle weakness that leads to difficulty eating and drinking; and a rash in the ear and other parts of a person’s face.

Wallace acknowledged that some people can develop shingles after receiving other vaccines, but cautioned that it’s rare.

“What happens after vaccination is you have this temporary period of lower levels of white blood cells and this temporary period can be sufficient in some people, and especially immunocompromised people [and older people], to have a shingles flare,” she said, who added that she’s worried that Bieber’s fans, many of whom are young and healthy, will believe the conspiracy theories and forgo vaccination. “His life is awfully stressful. Maybe the COVID did it. He probably had a lot going on at once.”

When it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, Wallace affirmed that there is not sufficient evidence at this time to attribute a definitive link between Ramsay Hunt or shingles and the COVID-19 vaccine. Even if evidence of an association does emerge, she said, it is rare and “the benefits of vaccination outweigh the potential risks.” However, the COVID-19 vaccines and others can rarely case side-effects like Bell’s palsy, a form of facial weakness or paralysis that is usually temporary.

It’s also critical to state that COVID-19 vaccines don’t cause shingles, she said. In order to get shingles, you must already be infected. If a person develops shingles after getting a covid-19 vaccine, it will be because that person had a previous case of the chickenpox or shingles, Wallace explained. In fact, vaccinating kids against chickenpox and vaccinating people over 50 years old will prevent shingles and Ramsay Hunt syndrome.

Stopping the Flames of Misinformation From Spreading on Social Media

Ever since social media networks decided that, in fact, COVID-19 misinformation was indeed very bad, many have been engaged in a virtual whack-a-mole to stop its spread, rolling out policies and labels, boosting trustworthy sources of data, and deleting content on occasion. Whether they’ve been successful or not is still up for debate, though it does appear that the platforms have reacted, to varying extents, and taken action in this case.

Meta, responding to content on both Facebook and Instagram, said it was reviewing the content Gizmodo sent against its COVID-19 and vaccine policies. The company pointed out that many examples of misinformation Gizmodo sent over had already been labelled with links to trustworthy information about the vaccine and that the examples were not representative of the hundreds of millions of posts about COVID-19 vaccines shared on its platforms.

In addition, Meta pointed out that many of the posts Gizmodo sent over were clearly labelled with notification links, which is accurate, so that users could get more information about vaccines. The company also said that users who searched for “Justin Bieber vaccine” on Facebook would have to scroll down beyond trusted sources, such as news outlets, before seeing any other content. (This was not my experience: I found posts pretty quickly from conspiratorial users up top alongside links to Facebook’s COVID-19 resources.)

TikTok, which is the platform where Wallace was informed about the Bieber vaccine theory and its spread, did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. In its report on the matter on Monday, Rolling Stone called TikTok a “petri dish for such conspiracy-mongering content.” By Wednesday, or five days after Bieber revealed his diagnosis, it was hard to find any content related to the singer and vaccine conspiracy theories on TikTok.

Reddit did not reply to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

How Everyday Users Can Debunk Misinformation About Bieber

Once you see conspiracy theories or misinformation take off on social media, it can be difficult to know what to do next. Do you respond? If it’s outrageous, do you laugh? Most importantly, how do you treat the folks who are sharing the misinformation?

Aniano, the researcher who focuses on conspiracy theories, said users should flag or report this kind of content if the platform they see it on offers the option. She doesn’t expect this to be a cure-all, though. Additionally, even though conspiracy theories might seem absurd or funny to some, Aniano recommends that folks not share this type of content uncritically.

“It is expected that people will laugh at things that are absurd, but for people who believe in misinformation, a conspiracy theory is very much real to them,” she said. “If you give it more oxygen without explaining why it’s incorrect in the first place, then you might be unwittingly spreading more misinformation on your end.”

Meanwhile, Wallace, the epidemiologist and debunker, advises people to make sure they’re getting their health information from a verified source. Turn away from the TikTok videos, even hers, she said, and go to sources like the World Health Organisation, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, or your local health department. Like Aniano, Wallace also stresses that it’s important to verify that the information you’re sharing is from a trustworthy source before you amplify it on social media.

This isn’t the last time we’ll see celebrities held up as proof that vaccines cause physical illness, Aniano said. It’ll probably happen a lot more. However, next time, it might be wise to address the folks behind these theories with compassion, not ridicule or scorn.

People who start believing these very deep conspiracy theories typically aren’t in a good place in their lives, the misinformation researcher explained. Moreover, there is no one type of conspiracy theorist.

“It’s really easy for the public to read what conspiracy theorists say and kind of poke fun at them and laugh at them and think that they’re just really stupid or uneducated, but I would urge people to not see them that way,” Aniano said. “I would try and remember that empathy is really important in deradicalization and kind of bringing people back down to Earth when they have gone too deep into the rabbit hole.”